On Sept. 15, I awoke to the steady sound of buzzes emitting from my phone. A quick look through my texts and news headlines provided me with the cause of the furor. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) had just issued an executive order banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. Among the memorable responses were, “Who the fuck does Cuomo think he is?” and “Can’t adults enjoy fruit flavors too? Goddamn.”
Although the Trump administration and FDA announced a plan to ban many flavored e-cigarettes from the market—including mint and menthol—New York became only the second state to formally announce regulations, effective since Sept. 17, 2019. Likewise, the decision followed New York State Legislation S.2833/A.558, wherein the minimum legal age limit to purchase tobacco will be raised from 18 to 21. An estimated dozen vaping-related deaths across the nation further prompted the decision (USA Today, “New York adding menthol to flavor e-cigarette ban as vaping crackdown expands nationwide,” 09.26.19; City and State: New York, “What Cuomo’s executive order on vaping will and won’t do,” 09.15.19).
When Governor Cuomo spoke from his Midtown Manhattan office on the executive order, he offered this insight: “There are two facts that are central to this issue and they are incongruous but they are not inconsistent. First fact is that vaping is dangerous, period, for several reasons. It is addicting young people to nicotine…Second, we do not know the long term health effects of the use of this product” (YouTube, “Governor Cuomo Announces Emergency Executive Action to Ban the Sale of Flavored E-Cigarettes,” 09.15.19).
The increasing number of teen users served as the ban’s primary impetus, with an increase from 1.7 to 11.2 percent between 2011 and 2017 in high school e-cigarette use, but the number of young adults who use e-cigarettes some days, if not all, similarly increased from 2.4 to 5.2 percent between 2012-13 and 2015 (TruthInitiative, “E-cigarettes: Facts, stats and regulations,” 06.19.18 ).
The use of e-cigarettes, commonly in the form of the sleek and USB-esque Juul, is not unfamiliar at Vassar. Many students can recall at least one incident wherein a peer dropped a Juul around the “smoke-free campus,” or exhaled a cloud on a sunny day while walking to class (if not while in it). Alexander Wilstenholme-Britt ’22 recalled a particularly remarkable incident: “One time I was in office hours with my professor, discussing my paper, and about halfway through the conversation he whipped out his Juul and took a decently long hit. My first reaction? He’s a bad bitch.” Wilsenholme-Britt continued, “He’s a grown man—if he wants to hit a Juul, he can.”
Like hundreds of other Vassar students, Wilstenholme-Britt assumes the presence of e-cigarettes in campus life. A Spring 2018 survey from the American College Health Association shared by Andrea Pesavento, Director of Health Promotion and Education, reflected this sentiment. A sampling of 632 Vassar students indicated a perceived on-campus e-cigarette use rate of 67.9 percent. However, in the same survey, 85 percent of Vassar students reported never having used e-cigarettes.
Of the remaining 15 percent of students who had used e-cigarettes, only 7.5 percent reported any use within the preceding 30 days. This figure is far below the survey’s results at the University of Michigan, which is located in the only other state with a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, in which approximately 15 percent of students reported e-cigarette use. Additionally, it is lower than the 21 percent of Vassar students who reported smoking cigarettes.
Concerns that the ban on flavored e-cigarettes will lead to an increase in cigarette use was among the main criticisms of Governor Cuomo’s ban. For many high-schoolers, e-cigarettes are an entryway to a nicotine addiction that would be satisfied by smoking cigarettes. Conversely, some ban-proponents say the inconvenience of smoking cigarettes would successfully deter nicotine consumers with inclinations to quit.
One sophomore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to their participation in black market cigarette distribution (and will hereafter be referred to as Riley), described their experiences: “I started using nicotine by smoking cigs while drunk when I was 18, which is older than a lot of other people I know, but I made a pretty conscious effort while in high school to avoid nicotine because everyone who has smoked in my family has gotten cancer. I now go through either a pod or a pack every week to 10 days.”
Riley continued, “I didn’t really get into vaping until this school year, and mostly out of convenience … Now, I’d say this past month I vape about two-thirds of the time and smoke the other third.”
Another student, Elizabeth Ralston ’21, summarized her opinion in a tweet: “idk man virginia tobacco juul pods just feel kinda racist,” in a reference to the singular Juul pod flavor excluded from the ban (Twitter, @lizzoblizzo, 10.01.19). Ralston further expressed her frustration to The Miscellany News: “I think it won’t affect me personally that much, especially because I can always buy from out of state. I started Juuling with tobacco because it was a way for me to stop smoking, which made me feel gross even though it was only ever on weekends.”
She continued, “I don’t think it will stop people at Vassar from Juuling. Maybe fewer high school or middle school kids will pick up the habit, but I think these bans underestimate the actual appeal of these products … The fact that Juul is a really convenient and appealing product has scared a lot of parents and politicians, but overall I think its impact has been widely beneficial.”
Riley, a North Carolina native, adopted the practice of selling non-retail cigarettes before the e-cigarette ban. “I’m friends with a lot of people who smoke or vape and are also from New York or New England. When I bought my first pack of cigs here, they were almost double what I was used to paying,” they shared. “I decided to buy bulk cigarettes to transport up here after my first October break. I asked some of my friends if they were interested and some offered to pay a little extra for them. It just made sense to offer that to a larger group of people, especially because I can make $2 to $3 a pack.”
Riley, Ralston and Wilstenholm-Britt all concurred when asked about the accuracy of the survey reporting the number of Vassar students who use e-cigarettes. Their conclusion: The participants must have underreported their usage.
Yet, it remains unknown how regularly vaping Vassar students will cope with the loss of flavored e-cigarettes. They could adopt smoking cigarettes if they have not already, switch to tobacco-flavors or quit entirely. Regardless, one reality remains clear: The consumption of Juul and its marketplace companions will evolve.